Event Blog: Getting Around: Improving Rural and Metropolitan Transport | IPT

The topic was discussed on 26th February 2024 during the dinner hosted by the Industry and Parliament Trust. This discussion was chaired by Iain Stewart MP, Chair, Select Committee on Transport, with guest speakers Peter Stephens, Policy and External Affairs Director, Stagecoach; Martin Dean, Managing Director of UK Regional Bus at Go-Ahead Group and Professor Cecilia Wong, Director of Spatial Policy and Analysis Lab and Co-Director of Policy@Manchester at the University of Manchester.

Bus reliance in ‘deprived’ and ‘left behind’ neighbourhoods, coastal towns and rural areas

Having an effective and integrative public transport system has recently been seen as an important way forward to achieve the vision of a low carbon society. There has been major investment in metro systems and rail projects in many of our city-regions through City Deals. Though less glamourous, bus nonetheless remains the most versatile and adaptable mode in the public transport mix.

A 2021 report by the Oxford Consultants for Social Inclusion for the All-Party Parliamentary Group shows that a higher proportion of people in ‘deprived’ neighbourhoods (ranked among the 10% most deprived on the Index of Multiple Deprivation) travel to work by public transport. Due to the low levels of car ownership, workers in ‘left behind’ neighbourhoods, who are not only severely deprived but also have the highest level of community needs, paradoxically have to travel by car (or cannot travel to seek jobs at all) as their bus services have suffered from significant cutbacks since the mid-2010s. The report thus urges the need for the National Bus Strategy to boost local authorities’ capacity to support local transport services.

In addressing the spatial inequalities over access to education and employment opportunities, a report by Greengauge21 for the UK2070 Commission highlights the poor performance on social mobility and hardships experienced in coastal towns and rural areas due to a decade’s severe cut back of rural bus services. The recommendation is for town and city authorities to recognise the need to create strategic channels to prioritise access for bus services to the wider peripheral and rural hinterland areas.

Public transport accessibility is critical to the mobility of people, especially those with disability. The map on the left displays the varied percentage of disabled residents suffering from limitation of their day-to-day activities in Tameside Metropolitan Borough Council, which is overlaid by the bus routes and stops. The map on the right displays the varied percentage of disabled residents suffering from limitation of their day-to-day activities in Tameside Metropolitan Borough Council, which is overlaid by Greater Manchester Combined Authority’s public transport accessibility level classification. It is clear that peri-urban locations such as the pink area in Stalybridge South stands out as an area with high level of disabled residents with limitation in their day-to-day activities, but there is a lack of provision of good level of accessibility and bus service. (University of Manchestser’s Interactive Storymap can be accessed here)

Post COVID and the shifting landscape

Unlike London, most of our metropolitan areas do not enjoy a web-like connected public transport system. Major transport infrastructure investment has been made to improve the situation, however, the priorities tend to focus on improving the access to major city and town centres. Due to economic restructuring over the last 30 years, as shown in our own research from Manchester University, many of the new jobs created in Britain’s core cities are high skill white-collar jobs. Meanwhile, blue collar manual workers have to travel to out-of-town locations to work in factories and warehouses. As shown in our commuting analysis, blue collar workers have a higher propensity to travel to work on foot, by bike or by bus.

Post-COVID work practice has rapidly shift to hybrid working, with white collar office workers able to work from home online and thus reducing public transport needs towards city centres during weekdays. However, manual workers are less likely to work from home as many involve in-plant and machine operation occupations or involve providing personal service. Their demand for public transport and bus services remains and any cut in services is more detrimental to their mobility.

Another post-pandemic shift is the changing preference and choice of residential locations for those who can opt for hybrid working. There is a trend of lengthening commuting distance to seek more desirable or affordable housing. The divide between inter-urban and intra-urban mobility becomes less meaningful in policy terms, as the two have been blurred by real travel demand.

What could be done?

In order to address our public transport needs, there is a clear need to have a fully integrated public transport system and rapid and mass bus transit could be a cheaper option than building light rail systems. The bus is particularly important in addressing the first and last journey mile challenge and is a critical connector to rail services in rural and peripheral locations.

Our take up of Mobility as a Service (MaaS) is rather slow. With the advance of smart technology, smart and integrative ticketing and real time travel information to maximise the option of transport interchange is much needed. However, it took Manchester as least 15 years to resolve the bus franchising and single ticketing challenge and this is something on which metro mayors can share learning experience.

It is also important to point out that to have an efficient and integrated public transport system requires integration with landuse and the location of development to support connectivity between places and the mobility of people to access to social and economic opportunities. So, rather than seeing spatial planning as an obstacle, this is an opportunity for us to develop a comprehensive strategic approach to tackle the problem.

Cecilia Wong, Professor of Spatial Planning, Co-Director of Policy, University of Manchester